The old stuff just never goes away around here.
Former Red Sox manager John McNamara died Tuesday in Tennessee. McNamara last managed in Boston 32 years ago, and his worst moments happened 34 years ago. But as with Bill Buckner, Bob Stanley, Rich Gedman, and a few others, the pain of the 1986 World Series is still very fresh in the McNamara household.
I made a few calls early Wednesday after I learned Mac had passed. I spoke with Bruce Hurst, and left messages for Roger Clemens and Dwight Evans. I reached out to a funeral home in Nashville to let the McNamara family know the Globe was attempting to confirm his passing.
And then I got a call from a 615 area code and was stunned to hear, “Dan, this is Ellen McNamara . . .”
I told Ellen how sorry I was to hear of the loss of her husband, and apologized for bothering her family during their grieving. She was very understanding, and also wanted to deliver a message to the fans of New England.
“Game 6 is always going to be hanging over him,” she started.
We both knew what that meant. When you cover Boston sports for 40 years, you develop a shorthand for certain events. A few short words represent as much information as the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Say “Too Many Men on the Ice” and everybody knows you are talking about Bruins-Canadiens Game 7 in 1979. It’s the same with “David Tyree,” “Bucky Dent,” “Sugar Bear Hamilton,” “Grady Little,” and “Game 6.”
“Game 6” sets off Red Sox fans of a certain age. It’s like Niagara Falls to the Three Stooges. Game 6 is when Mookie Wilson’s grounder slithered between the hobbled ankles of Buckner. Game 6 is when Steamer threw the wild pitch that should have been a passed ball. Game 6 is when we saw those Calvin Schiraldi eyes.
Game 6 is when McNamara pulled Clemens for a pinch hitter with the Red Sox leading the Mets, 3-2, in the top of the eighth. Clemens was sailing along with a four-hitter and had retired the last five Mets he faced. He was coming off his 24-4 MVP season. He was primed to deliver the Red Sox their first World Series championship in 68 years. And then he came out of the game and everything fell apart.
After the loss, when the manager of the Red Sox was asked to explain the move, McNamara answered, “My pitcher asked out of the game.”
When Clemens heard that, he had to be restrained. He has always maintained that McNamara made the decision, then lied to cover his mistake.
This is how, 34 years later, without having asked any question about baseball, I found myself listening to Ellen McNamara issue a passionate defense of her husband who died just one day earlier.
“I just want to say one thing: My husband did not take Roger Clemens out of that game,” she insisted without solicitation. “Roger asked out of the game. He said he had a little cut or something.
“It tore John up that the press believed Clemens. John would not make something like that up. When Roger told him he wanted to come out, John said, ‘You’ve got to be [expletive] me!’ That’s what happened. When the chips were down, Roger spit the bit.
“That’s what happened, and I will believe John until I take my last breath. Why would John have taken out his best pitcher there? I couldn’t believe that anyone bought that crap. John deserves to have a better sendoff than for anybody to be critical of him.”
I informed Clemens, via text, that Ellen McNamara made some harsh remarks concerning his role in Game 6. He responded with, “Interesting. I think after Fish [pitching coach Bill Fischer] corrected him on the non-truthful things, they didn’t talk much after that. Need to focus on the positives . . .
“Sorry to hear of the passing of John. We had great success with him as our manager. All of us played extremely hard for him, Fish, and all the coaching staff. A lot of great memories!”
Things were never right for McNamara in Boston after ’86. The Red Sox went 78-84 in 1987. McNamara was fired at the All-Star break in 1988, and the Sox immediately won 12 straight games and 19 of 20 under new manager Joe Morgan. With Morgan, they won the American League East in 1988 and 1990.
McNamara managed parts of three more seasons in Cleveland and Anaheim after he was fired by the Red Sox.
“I don’t think Mac ever got over the World Series,” said Hurst, who won Games 1 and 5 of the Series. “Everything seemed to be negative after that. We came to spring training the next year and we were told not to think about that great season. Instead of celebrating what we did, we were told not to throw 0-and-2 sliders.
“But I am saddened to hear this. We were almost at the zenith with Mac. He came to us at a good time for our club and brought new perspective and a little bit of a swagger. I think that was good for our club at the time. He brought in Bill Fischer, who was a great pitching coach. It was really good for a while.”
I was in the process of thanking Hurst for his time when a text from Ellen McNamara popped up on my phone.
“I do not want John’s professional career defined by one game,” she wrote. “He was so much more than that. A good, kind, loving man.”